Man jailed for dangerous driving causing death of schoolgirl

Unaccompanied learner driver Eric Dunne was texting before his vehicle struck Aoife Doyle in Co Offaly

Eric Dunne arriving at Tullamore Circuit Court in Co Offaly on Friday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times.

Eric Dunne arriving at Tullamore Circuit Court in Co Offaly on Friday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times.

 

An unaccompanied learner driver who was using his mobile phone when his car struck and fatally injured a schoolgirl has been jailed for two years.

Eric Dunne (26), of Belair, Ballycumber, Co Offaly, was sending text messages seconds before his Hyundai Santa Fe struck Aoife Doyle, who was walking with her best friend on the R436 at Erry, Clara on the evening of March 20th last.

Dunne had pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing the 14-year-old’s death and was sentenced by Judge Keenan Johnson at Tullamore Circuit Court on Tuesday.

The judge described the circumstances of the case as “horrific” and “heartbreaking”. He said Aoife as a child who was “full of vitality, ability and talent”.

He said the case centred on two “primary aggravating factors” - the fact that Dunne was texting at the time and that he was on a learner permit and driving unaccompanied.

Judge Johnson noted a 2015 Road Safety Authority campaign which highlighted that texting while driving made the possibility of crashing 23 times more likely. In light of those statistics, he urged car manufacturers to follow a policy seen in the US where phone applications have been used to prevent people texting when driving.

Unable to remember

The trial heard that following his arrest on June 30th last, Dunne told gardaí he said he was unable to remember seeing the girls on the roadside or if the lights of the vehicle were switched on.

“All I remember was the bang,” he said, adding that he could not recall texting in the lead up to the collision.

In a letter read out on his behalf by Des Dockery SC, Dunne expressed his remorse over the incident and said “I wish it was me instead of Aoife”.

“She would be here today if it wasn’t for my stupidity. I can honestly say I did not see her and there is not a day or night that I don’t think of her,” he said.

Dunne, whose partner is expecting a child, said he had been suffering from a “crippling anxiety condition” prior to the collision. The court he had been driving for eight years and had failed his driving test on three separate occasions.

The court previously heard that Aoife and her best friend Cara Cronly were out walking and taking photos of the sunset at the time of the collision.

Cara told gardaí that she noticed a vehicle with full lights on coming towards them. She stepped in from the road as it was pretty close to them and moments later noticed shoes and socks on the road before finding her friend in a ditch.

In a victim impact statement previously read to the court, Cara said she and Aoife had believed they would “grow old together”.

“We knew everything about each other. We had so many secrets together. I just miss her and I find it hard to see a future without her.”

Untold hardship

Aoife’s aunt Emer Doyle said in her victim impact statement that the teenager’s death had brought untold personal hardship to Aoife’s parents, Oonagh and Damien, and the wider family.

“One of the hardest days in all of this was her 15th birthday on September 20th, six months to the day she was killed,” said Ms Doyle. “Instead of giving her cake, we were laying flowers on her grave.”

Judge Johnson sentenced Dunne to 3½ years but suspended the final 18 months for five years subject to a number of conditions including that Dunne enter into a peace bond, engage with probation services for 18 months after his release and liaise with mental health services. He disqualified him from driving for 10 years.

“Some may feel that given the tragic consequences of the offending, the sentence is too lenient,” the judge said, adding he would be thinking of Aoife’s family on Saturday, which will be the first anniversary of her death.

“However, I believe the sanction is measured, just and fair...The sentence is structured not so much to punish the accused, but rather to deter others who might be tempted to text while driving and to emphasise the fatal dangers that such activity attracts.”